WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to end the government’s bulk collection of telephone records got a unanimous go-ahead on Thursday from a second U.S. congressional committee, but the measure, according to some sources, could actually enhance U.S. surveillance capabilities.
Advancing the first legislative effort at surveillance reform since former contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the program a year ago, the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee unanimously approved by voice vote the “USA Freedom Act.”
The measure would end the National Security Agency’s practice of gathering information on calls made by millions of Americans and storing them for at least five years. It would instead leave such records in the custody of telephone companies.
The bill would allow the NSA to collect a person’s phone records if investigators can convince the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court they have a reasonable suspicion the person was involved in terrorism. It would also allow NSA to trace the person’s calling patterns to “two hops” - to identify all the numbers the individual targeted had called, and then to further trace the numbers of the persons those people called.
But two sources familiar with the bill’s details said it would also make it possible for the NSA to collect metadata on telephone users whose data had not lately been available for collection by the agency.
The sources said the broad NSA collection program President Barack Obama has decided to scrap had actually been collecting less raw call metadata in recent years because of telephone companies’ move to flat-rate billing rather than charging subscribers for individual long-distance calls.
Under reform plans Obama’s aides discussed with Congress, the NSA, after seeking approval from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, could require phone companies to begin logging call metadata from the issuance of a court order even if the subscriber had a flat-rate plan.
Two sources familiar with the bill approved by the House committees said it was intended to empower the court to issue such orders.
The vote by the Intelligence Committee cleared the way for the measure to be considered by the full House of Representatives, a day after the House Judiciary Committee also voted unanimously to advance a similar, but somewhat more restrictive, measure addressing the collection of telephone metadata.
Both House panels approved language requiring the NSA to obtain FISA court approval before asking companies for metadata, except in emergencies. The Intelligence Committee originally proposed that the NSA could ask the companies for the data and then quickly seek retroactive court approval, but later abandoned that position.
Michigan Republican U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, the intelligence panel’s chairman, and Maryland Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, its top Democrat, said they were pleased the measure garnered strong support from both Republicans and Democrats.
“Enhancing privacy and civil liberties while protecting the operational capability of a critical counterterrorism tool, not pride of authorship, has always been our first and last priority,” they said in a joint statement.
The bill, a compromise version of previously introduced legislation, remained several steps from becoming law. The Senate has yet to make much progress on similar legislation. But the bill’s strong support by the two House committees improved its chances after a year of sharp divisions over the revelations by Snowden.
Many lawmakers, especially those who work most closely with the intelligence community such as Rogers and Ruppersberger, had defended NSA program as legal and essential intelligence tools that have saved Americans’ lives.
Others expressed outrage and called for the immediate end of the programs as a violation of Americans’ privacy rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Editing by David Gregorio, Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh